This story is the final installment of “Could She Flip It?,” a series from The Lily about the women running in 2020 who could flip House and Senate seats long held by the opposing party.
AUSTIN — The ad was designed to attack her — but watching it for the second time in a row, MJ Hegar cannot stop smiling.
The 30-second spot for Texas Sen. John Cornyn (R) is titled, “Demeanor.” It begins with a “graphic language” warning, as Hegar’s face fades onto the screen. Looking straight at the camera, she delivers one of her personal mottos: “You don’t f--- with Texas women.”
“It might as well say, ‘Paid for by MJ for Texas,’” Hegar says. “It’s perfect.”
Competing for a seat that has been held by a Republican since 1961, Hegar believes Texas is hungry for the leadership of a “tough woman.” Hegar is a 44-year-old Purple Heart recipient with two kids, who bench-presses 115 pounds while listening to Lizzo. She campaigns in aviators, jeans and studded black boots that she sometimes switches out for Wonder Woman Crocs, a token of her love for female superheroes. In 2012, she filed a lawsuit that opened military combat roles to women.
Hegar’s language has become a central issue in her race, the latest in a string of attacks many perceive to be targeting her gender. Republicans have come after Hegar’s motorcycle and the sprawling lotus flower tattoo that covers much of her right arm and shoulder, hiding shrapnel wounds she’s had since she was shot down by the Taliban in 2009. While Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) also knocked then-Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.) for swearing during his 2018 Senate campaign, voters say it’s hard to imagine many of these criticisms being lobbed at a man.
Hegar has countered with her own gendered attacks against Cornyn, an old-school Republican who has been in the Senate for 18 years, calling him too “soft” and “delicate” to represent a state known for its cowboys and outlaws. Though her campaign has generated significantly less hype than O’Rourke’s blockbuster run, polls still show a tight race, with Cornyn holding onto a narrow lead. With Texas now considered a swing state, Hegar is asking longtime conservative voters to examine their gender biases — and vote for a woman who defies them.
Hegar ran for office for the first time in 2018, challenging eight-term congressman John Carter in Texas’s 31st Congressional District, in the suburbs of Austin. Her campaign ad, “Doors,” quickly went viral, attracting national attention for its unflinching depiction of domestic violence, highlighting the moment when Hegar’s biological father pushed her mother through a glass door. Hegar came within three points of Carter, narrowing a gap that was 30 points wide in 2016.
With young people flocking to Texas’s big cities, and a rising number of Latino voters in the state, experts say it’s “only a matter of time” before Texas turns blue, a shift that would fundamentally change American politics, obscuring almost any Republican path to the presidency. When O’Rourke won over 48 percent of the vote, a Democratic Texas seemed possible for the first time.
Now all eyes are on Hegar.
Hegar purposely doesn’t watch what she says on the campaign trail. At home, she swears all the time, she says. When she decided to run for office, she said, she warned her team that she would have to be “unfiltered.” She had no interest in politics, she told them, if she couldn’t be herself.
“I was like, ‘I curse. I don’t sugarcoat things,’” Hegar said.
Hegar never would have run against Cruz, she says: He would have “wiped the floor” with her. They’re both “disrupters,” she says, unafraid to offend people in their own party. Texans are looking for that kind of independent spirit, she says — something many struggle to find in Cornyn, who consistently votes with President Trump, though he recently claimed that he often disagrees “privately.”
“It’s a toughness thing,” she said.
Hegar is holding a breakfast taco and a can of Big Red when she is approached by a man in a camouflage hat.
There are 50 people gathered in the church parking lot in Corpus Christi, Tex., on a Saturday morning in late October. And while most in the crowd are Hegar supporters, there is something about this man that compels a nearby police officer to move a few steps closer.
“I’m an Air Force vet,” the man says, pushing past the Hegar staffer trying to secure a few feet of social distance.
He stretches out his hand for Hegar to shake, narrowing his eyes when she hesitates.
“I’m as healthy as a horse, and you are, too.”
She firmly takes his hand, holding eye contact until he backs away.
It’s the kind of encounter Hegar has had to deal with her whole life, she says later. When men are threatened by her, she says, they feel the need to prove that they’re stronger than she is — or, in this case, more willing to contract a highly infectious virus.
Hegar decided it was worth the extra hand sanitizer.
For much of her professional life, Hegar has been the only woman in the room. She knew she wanted to be in the Air Force at age 7, watching Star Wars for the first time. When she told people that she wanted to be Han Solo, dodging asteroids on the Millennium Falcon, they asked why she didn’t want to be Princess Leia. As she got a little older, deciding to wait until marriage to have sex, one family member tried to convince her that she was gay: It was the only explanation, she was told.
“It bristles me when people tell me I’m wrong about who I am,” Hegar said.
This happens a lot when she tells people that she’s naturally introverted, she says. “Mansplainers” will sometimes inform her that she’s actually an extrovert.
“I immediately judge people based on whether they say they’re surprised or I’m wrong,” she said. “I can turn it on when I need to and then I’ll go faint on the couch.”
In the Air National Guard, which she joined after the Air Force, many of the men respected Hegar, recognizing her as one of the top captains in the squadron, said Rhys Hunt, one of Hegar’s commanders in Afghanistan. Others would say she was “too over the top,” he said, because she would often speak up.
“Perhaps some men thought it was inappropriate for a woman to be like that,” Hunt said.
Soon after she deployed, a senior noncommissioned officer started a rumor that she had been fooling around with some guys in the unit, she wrote in her book, “Shoot Like a Girl.” Throughout her military career, she had made a point never to get involved with anyone she flew with, she wrote. She had spent too long trying to be “one of the gang” to be “on the menu.”
“That rumor hurt me so deeply because he was trying to separate me from the group, make me different from them,” she said. “He was trying to diminish me.”
It was good practice for Hegar’s Senate run. Along with the ads about her language and her tattoos, Republicans have criticized her general demeanor on the campaign trail. Cornyn’s communications director, Travis Considine, recently tweeted that Hegar “needs a time out.”
“It’s because she’s a woman, obviously,” said Andrea Vela, a children’s mental health specialist based in Corpus Christi who is voting for Hegar. Cornyn seems to be banking on the fact that Hegar’s outspoken nature will rub voters the wrong way, she says, providing an uncomfortable contrast to the “feminine, suburban housewife.”
“Campaigning for office is like going to a job interview,” said Krista Piferrer, Cornyn’s press secretary, after the Cornyn campaign released the ad on Hegar’s language. “Those doing the hiring — the voters — have to consider not just an applicant’s qualifications, but also their temperament and how’d they’d work with other members of the team. These are not MJ’s strong suits.”
These critiques don’t resonate with Vela.
“I think it depends what area you’re from,” she says. “Definitely here in South Texas, we know that’s not who we are. We’re strong, outspoken women.”
Vela is not so sure about the rest of her state: What will Dallas’s pearl-clad suburbanites make of Hegar?
This kind of question has come up throughout Hegar’s two campaigns. Her team wants to portray her as tough — but not so tough that she’s intimidating. It’s helpful to show her as a mom, said Cayce McCabe, the communications consultant who has directed all of Hegar’s ads, including “Doors.” Her two sons, ages 3 and 6, appear in most of her commercials — usually at the end, once she’s left the motorcycle in the garage and taken off her leather jacket.
“There is a softening to it,” McCabe says. “Seeing her ride a motorcycle or with her tattoos — and then seeing her hug her little kids.”
Before the pandemic, Hegar brought her kids everywhere, regularly balancing both on her lap as she fielded questions from voters. Now they show up at Zoom events, darting out from the cardboard “nest” of pillows and blankets that she keeps in the corner of her office, asking for a gummy vitamin or a quick Nerf gun fight.
This sometimes elicits a different kind of gender critique, Hegar says.
“When I do rub people the wrong way it’s not because I have a motorcycle or have tattoos. It’s because I’m working full time with small kids.” Voters want to know what she plans to do with her sons if she gets to D.C., she says.
Hegar has thought about refusing to answer, on principle, launching into a feminist monologue on how they would never ask that question of a man. Instead, she says, she usually talks about her husband, Brandon Hegar, a “masculine teddy bear” of a partner, who settled for a Star Wars mask when he realized that no one on Etsy made Snoopy masks in an adult size. Earlier in their relationship, she was his “groupie,” she’ll say, lip-syncing every word as his laptop pop band played to half-empty dive bars. Now he tags along on campaign trips, making grocery lists on his phone as she talks to reporters.
For many years, Hegar says, she didn’t have a very high opinion of men. After her mother left her father, who Hegar calls a “monster,” he pleaded with her to come back, Hegar wrote in her book.
“He told her ... that he would put blankets over our heads before shooting us with his shotgun and then would turn it on himself. We could finally be a happy family together, in heaven.”
It’s funny, Hegar said: Everyone assumes she learned to curse in the military. She actually learned from her mom.
Throughout her parents’ 18-year marriage, Hegar said, her mother was never allowed to curse. When she finally left, her therapist asked her to practice saying “f---.” It was important, she was told, to realize that she had agency over her own words.
Now her mom swears “like a sailor,” Hegar said — often in front of her boys.
She never gets too mad about it.
By the fifth campaign event of the day, Hegar is exhausted. Her stomach hurts. She’s ready to go home. But there are dozens of people in the McAllen, Tex., parking lot, waiting to hear her speak.
“Where’s Brandon?” she asks her communications director, scanning the crowd.
She doesn’t need him for anything, she clarifies: She just needs to know where he is.
Especially for an introvert, campaigning can sometimes feel like being held over a “pool of piranhas,” Hegar says — “and I feel like I’m supposed to dance or something.” When she feels overwhelmed, she’ll often lock eyes with her husband, who comes to almost all her events. It’s her version of the Mason jar she made for her 6-year-old son out of glitter glue and water: He’s supposed to shake the glitter, watch it settle and calm down.
There’s a lot of pressure when you’re running on the heels of someone like O’Rourke, a “golden boy” politician who’s been compared to Barack Obama and John F. Kennedy. By the end of his campaign, O’Rourke was packing stadiums with thousands of people.
“He gave people goose bumps, talking about lofty ideas and a return to a better place,” says Adam Reiser, a senior adviser on Hegar’s campaign. “Nobody wants to follow that.”
As much as Vela, the Corpus Christi mental health specialist, loves Hegar, she gets a different kind of misty look in her eye when she talks about O’Rourke.
“Oh, Beto,” says Vela, who saw O’Rourke speak five times in 2018. “Oh my god, you have no idea.”
When Hegar launched her campaign, many Democrats were “hoping for the magic to happen again,” she says. Even in another year — when Hegar could have tried to rally the same kinds of crowds — their respective runs were always going to be different: Hegar is an introvert, and O’Rourke, who built his campaign on selfie videos, famously said he was “born to be in it.” In 2018, Texas needed a political rock star to convince Democratic voters that Texas was winnable. Hegar recognizes that without O’Rourke’s candidacy, she wouldn’t have a shot.
Still, she says, it can be frustrating when people tell her to “just do what he did.”
“And I’m like, what he did — ”
She leans in and whispers.
“It didn’t work.”
Hegar likes to say there is “no face” for a statewide Texas Democrat: No one has a mental picture of who that person is.
“What’s a Texas Democrat? Ann Richards?” she asks, referring to the Texas governor who led the state in the early ’90s.
For some candidates, the lack of road map would be daunting. For Hegar, it’s exhilarating.
A faceless Democrat could be anyone, she says, including a woman on a motorcycle.